What You Think They Think

Posted in Limited Information on December 1, 2009

By Steve Sadin

Playing a Limited format is a constantly evolving, ongoing experience. The lessons that you learn from your first draft in a format will not all apply when you're starting your tenth.

The reason for this is that Magic doesn't take place in a vacuum. While you're learning, so is every other player. In one of your early drafts in a format you notice that Allies have a lot of potential, while no one else at your table wants to touch them. After you 3-0 your draft with your Ally deck, you are going to find that players are going to start paying more attention to Oran-Rief Survivalist and friends.

And while you and your friends are learning things about the format, so is every other drafter in the world. While you can learn a lot from drafting with the same group of people regularly, you will get significant value out of talking to and drafting with different people. This might mean heading to the Tuesday night draft at your local store, hopping on Magic Online, or even dropping by a card shop for a quick draft after dinner when you're on vacation.

The reason for this is that, while you can somewhat accurately track the way that biases and opinions change for your regular drafting group, those beliefs might not be in sync with what the rest of the world believes.

    Inbred Results

Sometimes, the differences between your local valuations and the valuations that others ascribe can give you a large edge. You and your group might know that certain strategies are very powerful while the rest of the world is pretty much in the dark about them. But other times, having wildly different valuations can put you at a significant disadvantage.

I remember back when Shards of Alara was new, the people who I draft with regularly valued the Panoramas very highly. Pretty much everyone in the group just came to agree that Panoramas were worthy of being drafted pretty much right after the premium picks in the set.

Third pick, or tenth?

But very few other people in the world felt that way. So when I did my first draft with friends who weren't a part of my group, I wound up losing a ton of equity by taking Panoramas waaaaay higher than anyone else did. I would take the Panoramas third and fourth, and there would still be some left in the packs on the tenth and eleventh pick.

Over time it became obvious that my group had been overvaluing the Panoramas. While this was as much of a reflection on the types of decks that we were drafting (we really liked color-intensive decks early on in that format) as it was on our misevaluations of the Panoramas in the abstract, the fact remained that we didn't need to take the Panoramas anywhere near as high as we had been for the first few weeks of the format.

If everyone in the world had thought during the first few weeks of the format, like my group had thought, that the Panoramas were very valuable, then there still would have been a gradual decline in their value over time (because frankly, they just weren't as good we thought they were!). But it would not have been nearly as drastic as the fall in their value that occurred for us once we did some drafts with other people who saw the Panoramas as virtual nonentities.

    Knowing When You've Got an Edge

Jon Becker wrote a very interesting article about a year and a half ago on how to get an advantage by recognizing what cards are being undervalued.

For me, the most illuminating part of this article was when Jon said that "Just because something is underdrafted doesn't mean you have to jump on it at the first opportunity. It's more a function of being willing to pay a little more than current market for a card than paying for a card's actual value."

So while I was initially way off on my valuations of the Panoramas—thinking that they were worthy of very early picks turns out to have been pretty foolish—after some careful thought I found a way to profit off of the Panoramas.

I later came to the conclusion that the Panoramas were not as good as I had initially thought they were (in hindsight they were probably worth picking about sixth through ninth). By grabbing them midway through most packs when others were neglecting them, I was able to take advantage of what I saw as a widespread inefficiency.

I was able to gain a profit when I thought that Panoramas were worthy of grabbing as early as about sixth by regularly taking them seventh through tenth.

While Jon's article has been interpreted to mean that you might be able to apply this rule to every card, gaining a marginal profit on everything that you can identify the true value for, this rule should only affect the way that you draft when you are looking at cards that have many easy to find substitutes (like a Runeclaw Bear in a format with a lot of 2-power two-drops, or a five-mana 4/4 in a format with a ton of good five-drops, or a Panorama in a format with a sizable amount of mana fixing). Otherwise, this rule should just give you a sense of when things are going well for you.

If you have noticed that a card is being significantly undervalued, you shouldn't hesitate to take it early; just be happy when you get it later than you feel you should.

For example, Timbermaw Larva is a card that tends to go noticeably later than it should (in large part because not many people draft decks that can properly support it). However, if you're drafting a deck that can support it, you should take it whenever it's the best card for you.

Just because you have a chance to get a card later than you feel it should go, that shouldn't prevent you from pouncing on it when it is the best card that you can get.

    The Fluidity of Color Preference

Once you have a sense of how other players typically value cards and colors you can start articulating your preferences. Early on in a format, I will usually identify whatever colors and/or strategies I think are most powerful in the abstract and pursue them relentlessly, stopping only if I find an opportunity to go for something that is painfully available. Once it becomes more apparent what the best and/or most popular strategies are, I look to find what strategies are being consistently underdrafted and go for them.

This is ultimately the same thing that I do early on in a format. Early on, the most powerful strategies tend to be undervalued as people frequently value those powerful strategies the same way that they will value less powerful strategies.

Later on in a format, if powerful strategies are being overdrafted, I will look to identify strategies that are less powerful in the abstract that become quite desirable because they are being underdrafted.

Frequent readers will no doubt remember that I've been talked a number of times about how much I love to draft red in Zendikar. So when I was in the Top 8 of a PTQ for San Diego last weekend, what did I draft? A heavy green deck with some very light black, of course!

As much as I love to draft red in Zendikar, it's getting to the point where it's being drafted too heavily for me to try to muscle my way into the color. Of course if I get passed good red I'm still going to jump on it, but now I'm much more inclined to go after colors that have less depth.

A couple of weeks ago I explained why I would take Bladetusk Boar over Kor Skyfisher pick 1, pack 1. I would make this pick not because I thought that Bladetusk Boar was the better card, but because I really wanted to be red. Now that I don't want to be red as badly as I used to, I will take the Kor Skyfisher pretty much every time.

In a week or two, if I feel that players' preferences have shifted again, I might again lean toward taking the Bladetusk Boar. But until then, the Kor Skyfisher will be the way to go for me.

    Risky Business

I've drafted some wacky decks in Top 8s of PTQs, at Pro Tours and at Grand Prix. Often times, they are types of decks that I had never even imagined before that very draft!

For example, during a Magic 2010 draft on day two of Grand Prix–Brighton this summer I wound up playing a mono-green deck that splashed three Islands for a Levitation. The deck was easily the best deck that I drafted in the format, allowing me to go undefeated in the draft without dropping so much as a game.

Did I learn anything deep about M10 from this experience? Not really. During that draft I simply noticed that I had the chance to exploit the fact that a color was being underdrafted, so I made some so-called risky picks that paid off nicely.

Why am I willing to take these kinds of risks during relatively high-pressure situations, when I rarely do during practice drafts? During practice drafts I'm trying to learn as much as possible about the "normal" decks that you can draft. From time to time I'll see an opportunity to do something wacky and I'll go for it, but most of the time I'll draft fairly conservatively.

This is the same way that most people approach practice drafts. However, when it comes tournament time, players typically become much less likely to go out on a limb and try something new, or go for a strategy that they consider "gimmicky," even if it appears to be available. Consequently, because so few other people are willing to expose themselves to the risks that an untested strategy presents, it becomes more profitable than normal to go for those off-the-wall plans.

The important thing to remember is that almost every decision that you make in Magic is "risky," there are just varying levels of correctness associated with those decisions.

Pretty much the only decisions that you can make that don't have any risk associated with them in Magic are plays that lead to a 100% chance of winning (such as attacking for lethal damage when your opponent is tapped out), or plays that you have no other alternative but to make (such as playing an Island on the first turn in your mono-blue deck, or chump-blocking with your one untapped creature when your opponent is swinging for lethal damage, or countering that otherwise lethal Lightning Bolt).

The ideal play is the play that gives you the highest percentage chance of winning. While you will rarely know exactly what that percentage is, through careful consideration you can piece together the best decision given your knowledge of the situation.

If you don't know have a good sense of the likely payoffs that a certain path might offer, then you will have sufficient reason to avoid a "risky" strategy because of the high degree of uncertainty associated with the decision. But if you are merely saying something is "risky" because it could turn out very well or very poorly, then you are making choices based only on fear.

While some draft strategies are definitely more volatile than others, if you find that you believe that you can gain a greater edge by pursuing a "risky" strategy, then there is actually nothing risky about it.

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